If your ego is getting too big, go stand in Muir Woods National Monument with the world’s oldest and tallest redwood trees. When you stand in Muir Woods you feel small.
Standing among these giant redwood trees that date back to thousands of years ago, humans are dwarfed by the size of the trees. Even as grand as the height of the trees are to the human eye, what captured my attention was one circle of trees.
Hundreds of years ago, in what is now Muir Woods, stood a single redwood tree. The redwood was killed, perhaps in repeated wildfires.
But the tree did not die.
“Below the ground, its massive root system was full of vitality. Before long, hundreds of young, bright green burl sprouts began to come up around the circle formed by the root crown of the original tree. Some of those sprouts have grown into the full size trees that today stand in a circle around the original trunk.”
You can still see the remnant of the original tree in the center of the picture below.
But, my photographs do not do justice to the trees and its root system. For one thing, my camera could not capture the height of the trees in one photograph. Second, the root system is underground, unseen to the human eye. But, the root system is holding up and giving life to these magnificent trees.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m not an environmentalist. I do love our National Parks and Monuments. But my adventure to Muir Woods had little to do with redwood trees, National Parks, and/or preservation.
It had everything to do with faith.
As I reflect on the nature of the church, the state of the church, and my experience of the church, the “Family Circles,” as they are known, is the image of vitality I hope we can embrace.
It will require acknowledging and embracing at least three things:
- Death – one single redwood died and gave birth to many other trees. It died, but that was not the end of the story. From death came new life. Isn’t that the story of our faith? Death is a natural part of the life-cycle. After all, we are all terminal. If the church is to continue to thrive well into the next millennia, we need the courage to name the final stages of life for some of our congregations. The important conversation is not that the church is in the final stage of life, the conversation is about offering a legacy for the future. We are resurrection people. Resurrection happens following death.
- New Life – surrounding the singular tree are new trees. Not one tree, but several trees. Giving birth is the legacy of this tree. Would I had even noticed it if there wasn’t a circle of trees around it? Would I even know that there was a tree that had existed in this place hundreds of years ago without the new trees rising up around it? Probably not. It has brought new life. What is the legacy of your congregation? Is there new life breaking forth? When was the last time your congregation gave birth to something new? A new congregation?
- Roots – While the outward appearances of the tree show death, what was happening underground was a strong, vital root system. Are our roots deep enough, strong enough, life-giving enough to guide us forward? If so, how are you nurturing them to bring new life into your community? If not, it may be time to reexamine why the church exists in your context.
One of the ongoing legacies of John and Charles Wesley is the importance of personal piety and social holiness. Notice I said “and,” not “or.” This vital faith forms the roots that nurture our faith tradition. As Christians in the Wesleyan tradition, our roots are a part of a Family Circle that unites us with brothers and sisters who follow Jesus. Our family circle is unique in that we hold together holiness of heart and life. We are formed inwardly to live outwardly.
Regardless of what the future may bring, what I will continue to hold onto, continue to be reminded, continue to shine a light on is the “and” of our family circle. In a time when many are willing to graft themselves into other traditions, I am grateful to stand among the family circle with roots that speak to a vital faith. We are a part of “massive root system” that can be full of vitality.
Let’s not forget who we are because we have lost sight of whose we are. If you do, go stand among the redwoods and find the Family Circle. You will witness heights and depths of faith formed over the millennia.
 Muir Woods National Monument, US National Park Service, May 22, 2016.